During his 15-year career as an executive at NBC, Tim Winter was one of the people who helped decide what TV shows reached the viewing public. Now president of the Parents Television Council, Winter spends much of his time as a thorn in the side of his former peers.
Everything changed for the entertainment business lifer roughly eight years ago when he was at home cooking dinner with his 5-year-old daughter and the dating show "Fifth Wheel" came on the TV.
According to Winter, the point of the show was to send one single individual on a double date with two couples to see if any of the four is willing to betray their date for the newcomer.
"I was shaken. As a father of a daughter, this sends the message to little girls that this is how you should behave to get boys to like you," Winter said, referring to a scene where one contestant put whipped cream on her chest and let the male contestants eat it.
"It shook me that this was on broadcast TV in the middle of the day."
Winter soon sent in his resumé to the PTC, but not without first overcoming some reservations about the ideological leanings of the group and its founder, conservative activist L. Brent Bozell III.
"Brent Bozell and I, we've never once checked the same box on the ballot," Winter said. "I'm a lifelong Democrat, thinking, 'Do I want to be associated with this guy whose politics are so opposite?'"
According to Winter PTC is a non-partisan organization with no religious ties, which eased many of his concerns. Soon after he was hired as Bozell's second-in-command, moving up to president four years later when Bozell moved on to focus on his other ventures.
Bozell remains a member of PTC's board; other members include singer Pat Boone and former Quaker Oats chairman Robert Stuart. But Winter has spent the past four years driving the PTC's crusade to eliminate violence, profanity and sexual content from the airwaves.
The watchdog group has seen its profile rise steadily in recent years thanks to media blitzes against TV shows deemed harmful to children by its research staff. Recent campaigns against shows such as MTV's "Skins" and "Gossip Girl" have prompted advertisers to pull their sponsorships but have also stoked the group's critics.
While the PTC's mission of creating a family-friendly environment on broadcast TV during prime time seems relatively noncontroversial, aspects of its campaigns have crossed into areas that have led some to label them attempts at censorship.
One example is controversy surrounding photos of actors from the show "Glee" in a recent issue of GQ. In the photo spread, actresses Lea Michelle and Dianna Agron, who play teenagers on the show, are both depicted in various states of undress in a school setting. Actor Cory Monteith is shown fully clothed.
Winter drew headlines for claiming the
photos bordered on pedophilia, despite the fact both Agron and Michelle
are in their 20s.
"I was asked by TMZ or one of the Hollywood sites; they saw the pictures and asked. I said yes, they're adult actresses portraying children. It bordered on pedophilia," Winter said, adding that he stands by the statement. "Absolutely, I'd say it again."
When asked whether all actresses that portray younger characters should be barred from participating in racy photo shoots, Winter claimed the pictures were objectionable because the individuals in question were "taking on the role of a child."
"They [Agron and Michelle] have a
right to do it, but the fact they're doing it in-character, in costume
as a child is troubling," Winter said. "The government doesn't
have to be involved. Just because you have a right to do it doesn't mean
it's the right thing to do."
But one area where the PTC
would like to see the government involved in enforcing the Federal
Communications Commission's indecency policy, which was struck down in a
federal court last year after a legal challenge from Fox.
has thrown doubt on the Commission's ability to punish broadcasters for
airing fleeting expletives or nudity. The Solicitor General's
office recently requested an extension
within which to file a certiorari petition in the Fox case, which would
delay the deadline to request a review by the Supreme Court from March
22 to April 21.
The PTC has been one of the strongest voices pushing the administration to challenge the court's ruling.
"We're hopeful about the Supreme Court and pushing hard for an indecency rule before 10 p.m.," Winter said. "The driving force behind the lawsuits was our organization and our lawsuits against all these shows in 2003 and 2004."
Like those earlier lawsuits, the campaign against "Skins" in particular has struck a chord, likely because the show is considerably more liberal in its depiction of sex and drug use among teenagers than similar shows on the broadcast networks.
Winter said PTC primarily focuses its attention on shows aired on broadcast networks before 10 p.m., but made an exception because of the edginess of the British version of "Skins" on BBC America.
"The content was every bit as bad as we feared," Winter said.
"It depicts 14- to 17-year-old children having sex with each other without consequences, boys treating girls like sexual doormats, one girl sleeping with a boy to get narcotics, sexual relations with adults ... incredible amounts of alcohol and drug use ... things that would shock the sense of most parents every 22 seconds on average."
Winter faulted MTV for marketing the program primarily to teenagers and pre-teens through sites like Teen.com, arguing the show pushes the message that sexual promiscuity and drug use are "how the cool kids behave."
Even compared to other shows the PTC has protested such as "Gossip Girl" and "90210," Winter said "Skins" stands out for being much more explicit.
"This show is about glamorizing or normalizing behavior that has long-term consequences for kids," Winter said.
He said the group would still be concerned if the show wasn't explicitly marketed to teenagers, though that might turn it down by a degree or two. He framed the issue as part of a larger campaign PTC has waged through the years for cable choice, or allowing consumers to purchase only the cable channels they want instead of a bundle from their provider.
"It goes back to cable choice, education and informing parents," Winter said, arguing that many parents are not happy spending 80-90 cents every month on MTV as part of their cable bill. "The next phase is the case for cable choice and unbundling cable subscriptions."
Winter is quick to note his organization has never gone after shows on premium networks such as HBO or Showtime because consumers choose to subscribe to those channels on their own. Likewise, he said his organization is not focused the adult film industry.
"The problem is if you're forced to pay for really shocking content in the scope of your cable bill," Winter said. "When it comes to the public airwaves, what happens at 10 p.m. is different than at 8 in the evening."